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Nakamura: Humans Make Up the gods Who Make Them

“The creation of powerful supernatural beings in diminutive clay form mimes the divine creation of being from primordial clay. But this figurine work enacts an idealized relation between the human and divine such that the mimetic act establishes a double appropriation.

Through mimesis, the āšipu appropriates the divine power of creation by making copies of protective beings that assume the powers of the original. In addition, his material relation to the figurine manifested in relative size also embodies a divine relation to humans.

The diminutive size of the figurine renders humans giant in comparison. The āšipu, as creator and master of the figurines, becomes creator and marshal of the divine power of protection, who then fashions, commands and deploys a small army of protective spirits.

A bird-apkallū of the Nisroc kind, plate IXb.  Sun-dried clay plaque-figurine of a bird-apkallu, one of seven discovered in a foundation box in the S.W. corner of room 27 of the Burnt Palace at Nimrud. Previously published: Mallowan, ILN Aug 15, 1953, Fig. 8, bottom left; Iraq 16 (1954), N&R I, 229; Cf. also Rittig, 71.

A bird-apkallū of the Nisroc kind, plate IXb.
Sun-dried clay plaque-figurine of a bird-apkallu, one of seven discovered in a foundation box in the S.W. corner of room 27 of the Burnt Palace at Nimrud. Previously published: Mallowan, ILN Aug 15, 1953, Fig. 8, bottom left; Iraq 16 (1954), N&R I, 229; Cf. also Rittig, 71.

This cunning reversal amounts to a self-realizing request for protection made possible by the exposure of a secret: that humans make up the gods who make them.

But this exposure finds certain cover in the opacity of the figurine object, which presents itself to the world as a small, doll-like object made of clay, as a king in beggar’s clothes, as it were.

This “auto-affection” enacted through the creation of objects galvanizes power in mimesis as idealized repetition; in Derrida’s words, “[it] gains in power and in its mastery of the other to the extent that its power of repetition idealizes itself ” (1974:166).

And repetition does not produce the same; rather it magnifies difference masked by the similarity it bears to the original. The miniature figurine then provides a locus for the human enactment of a variety of desires and actions that animate the being it represents; in the Neo-Assyrian case, humans control, protect, contain, and command powerful deities and spirits in this spatial and material production of simulacra.

The scale of the miniature invites activities of play and fantasy. According to Roger Caillois, play, as “pure form, activity that is an end in itself, rules that are respected for their own sake, constitutes an area of “limited and provisional perfection,” in which one is the master of destiny” (2001:157).

In the realm of play, humans are free to “master” any relation, being, reality, or power, immune to any apprehension or consequence regarding their actions; this is especially true when such play is circumscribed by human–object relations. The tableau of the miniature solicits a relation of human mastery through an idiom of play that thrives on transgressive maneuvers of inversion and appropriation.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 33-4.

Nakamura: An Idiom of Protection Arises in the Material Enactment of Memory

Mastering Matters

“In the material register, Neo-Assyrian figurine assemblages present a physical gesture of miniaturization, hybrid form, and concealment. I have intimated that such material gestures disclose a magic technology as a symbolic and sensual logic that conspires with and against conventional value-producing forms.

The question now becomes one of how this material reality presents protection. I would suggest that in the context of apotropaic performance, a material economy that produces a miniature, hybrid, and hidden reality anchors and accomplishes an experience of human mastery.

Furthermore, this suite of gestures skillfully sustains the belief in divine power and order through a cunning reversal. The collision of Neo-Assyrian socioreligious beliefs with this material making engenders a force that cannot be contained or mastered by narrative closure.

This resistance to such mastery, in effect, secures magic’s very power. Magic does not seek the restoration of balance or the resolution of contradiction (Taussig 1993:126), rather it renders such contradiction immaterial, and in doing so, masters the system which defines the conditions of its disclosure.

The slippage between meaning and matter, belief and practice, enshrouds magic in secrecy that is at once opaque and transparent. As both contingent and autonomous, the magical object secretes indeterminacy into the structure that conceives it, holds it at a distance and thereby masters it.

Artifacts congeal processes of making — the simultaneous forging of objects, selves, relations, cultures, and worlds — in a gesture of becoming. To make is to transform, and such transformation derives from the human enactment of both the self and the world.

If we accept Bakhtin’s idea that to be means to communicate, then figurines are self-creating works that specifically address communications among various beings, human, animal, divine, and supernatural.

They provide the material site for the human action of creation which moves back on the human creators themselves (Scarry 1985:310), and this reverse process acts in complicit as much as disruptive, subversive, and obfuscating ways.

Notably then, the process of material creation discloses a certain “mimetic excess” (cf. Taussig 1993) whereby reproduction amounts to metamorphosis, self-amplification to self-effacement, and divergence to unity.

Bird-apkallū, with hands on their chests, and banduddu buckets in their left hands.

Bird-apkallū, with hands on their chests, and banduddu buckets in their left hands.

The Neo-Assyrians crafted protective figurines as clay or stone copies of various mythological and supernatural beings. Their form as miniature, portable, durable, free-standing, three-dimensional objects confronts humans within a distinct relationship; namely, this material choreography reproduces powerful beings in a reality that assumes an anthropocentric universe for its absolute sense of scale (following Stewart 1984:56).

The materiality of the figurine thereby discloses the authority of humans over the copy, and hence over the original. Here, the production and reception of the copy itself becomes a “dramatic form of (social) experience” (Jenson 2001:23), namely, that of human mastery.

Whether deity, double, ancestor, spirit, or animal, the “original” comes to inhabit a material reality of human design. As petrified and choreographed “life,” the figurine recreates the human as master in this relation, a relation whereby humans, as all-powerful giants, assert and play out their desires within the diminutive tableau of the figurine.

The specific “bundling” of material properties of the figurine provides an enduring frame and anchor for the various ways in which other subjects relate to it thereafter. As a thing, the petrified miniature object will always encounter and constitute subjects as vigorous, gigantic masters with the capacity to possess, manipulate, command, and destroy.

Through this production of figurines, Neo-Assyrian apotropaic rituals trace out complex, and even disorienting, relations between humans, deities, and various supernatural beings in space and time.

Throughout the ritual, the āšipu priest creates protective beings in a perpetual mode of dedication to important deities who are the “creators” of humankind. I have previously argued that these acts of dedication constitute a giving that takes back (Nakamura 2004); here, dedication is a demand for protection, a dialectic of giving that gives back more in return.

Protection then arises from the “mimetic slippage” that exacts a brash assertion of human mastery over divine power, masked through a posed reality of servitude. Apotropaic rituals enact a radical synthesis of material work and belief that configures a force capable of surmounting contradiction.

The durable material gestures of miniaturized scale, hybrid form, and concealment inscribe the subterranean landscape, effectively preserving a desired past for the future. In this way, an idiom of protection arises in the material enactment of memory.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 31-3.

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